The CCTV footage taken just after dawn on June 26 shows a dozen armed men crowded in the back of a truck blocking a road in Mexico City’s wealthy Lomas de Chapultepec district. Minutes later, the gunmen fired over 150 rounds at the armored car of the city’s police chief, Omar García Harfuch. Three people died in the attack, including two of his bodyguards; Mr. García Harfuch survived gunshot wounds in the clavicle, shoulder and knee. “Our Nation has to continue confronting cowardly organized crime,” he tweeted from his hospital bed.
The brazen attack has shaken a city easing out of the coronavirus lockdown. Mr. García Harfuch blamed the Jalisco New Generation Cartel, which the Mexican government has targeted in a joint operation with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, freezing thousands of bank accounts linked to the gangsters. Striking near the heart of power could be an attempt to make the Mexican government back off as it reels from the pandemic, which has killed more than 30,000, and a plummeting economy.
There is no shortage of losses to mourn in 2020: loved ones dead from Covid-19, jobs, freedom of movement amid lockdowns. But there are winners: certain tech companies and medical suppliers, and drug cartels. As President Andrés Manuel López Obrador of Mexico meets with President Trump this week in Washington, they should be looking at the cross-border issues of drug and gun trafficking.
Gangs across Latin America have used the crisis to exert influence in their turfs. They hand out aid and enforce curfews even as they war against rival gangs and officials. In June, gunmen assassinated a federal judge in the state of Colima and, on July 1, massacred 26 people at a rehab clinic.
While restrictions brought by the pandemic have reduced the movement of certain drugs, demand has grown for others. United States Customs and Border Protection has nabbed significantly less cocaine. But seizures of heroin and fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, have remained steady, while seizures of crystal meth have increased, which coincides with a spike in overdose deaths in various United States cities.
Health professionals say stress, loneliness and economic hardship all exacerbate drug abuse. “Shelter-in-place orders have pushed individuals battling sobriety into isolation and have decreased access to treatment and opportunity for distraction from addictions,” write Marcelina Jasmine Silva and Zakary Kelly in the American Journal of Managed Care.
Americans spent an estimated $150 billion on illegal drugs in 2016, and an iron river of guns flows from the United States. Between 2007 and 2018, more than 150,000 firearms confiscated from criminals in Mexico were traced to U.S. gun shops and factories.
While the cartels leave a trail of mass graves and disappearances, they style themselves as benevolent godfathers. They are now handing out boxes of food and supplies, with labels such as “Gulf Cartel,” to the poor Mexicans struggling to survive the economic meltdown caused by the pandemic.
I traveled to where cartel operatives were handing out food in the ramshackle village of La Loma de Concepcíon in the hills of the Mexico State. Ireneo, a 58-year-old flower farmer, described how his two teenage nieces obtained some of the food bags, known as “narco despensas.” The word came from the gangsters close to nightfall in April and spread rapidly through the village. About 200 residents, many of them teenagers or children, trekked up a dirt path to a clearing and formed in two lines to receive their plastic bags of milk, sugar, soap, rice, beans and other rewards. In some of the bags was a note saying, “Support from La Familia Michoacana, the M Comando,” the name of the drug cartel that dominates the area.
The handouts have helped the family get through the difficult period, said Ireneo, who asked that his last name not be used. “I believe that if someone comes with support, then you have to take what they give, wherever it comes from,” he said as roosters crowed in the background.
Others have no illusions about the cartel charity. “They give now what they take later from honest people,” said Guadencio Jiménez, a 31-year-old farmer in the nearby village of Santiago. “I am against these guys.”
Cartels also dominate a portfolio of crimes in their turfs, including human smuggling and sex trafficking. They engage in kidnapping and extortion, which hamper business and can cause people to flee their homes.
The cartel food relief was boosted by social media and made headlines across the world. But it helps few Mexicans, with the handouts reaching what is probably only a few thousand families. “It’s symbolic,” said Lorenzo Meyer, a political scientist. “It’s taking advantage of the crisis of coronavirus and sensation of emergency to say, ‘We’re here.’”
President López Obrador, who calls himself a leftist, has promised to uplift the poor with generous social programs, handing out fertilizer to farmers and scholarships to students. In April, he criticized the cartels for giving with one hand and killing with the other. “It would help if they thought of the suffering of the mothers of the victims,” he said.
But official aid has been hampered by a policy of avoiding debt despite the severity of the looming recession. While the government struggles to provide aid countrywide, the cartels focus on small communities. There they buy themselves concentrated support so that they can later hide people or merchandise and recruit smugglers and killers.
In another attention-grabbing move, cartel thugs enforced quarantine in some areas. In the city of Iguala, they hung out messages saying, “Stay inside your homes. We don’t want desmadres [partying] outside.” Meanwhile, videos reported to be from Sinaloa state showed gunmen beating alleged quarantine breakers with a bat marked “Covid-19.”
This enforcement follows a history of cartels’ punishing those they accuse of being antisocial criminals, such as thieves and rapists. They have paraded those they judge as guilty stripped naked with signs confessing their sins and have released videos of them beaten or mutilated.
“They show them on the street as if they were the authority, like a moral and physical authority,” Mr. Meyer said. “They are in dispute with the formal state in exercising acts of authority.”
The cartels rule in an environment of widespread impunity. One study found that nine out of 10 murders in Mexico are never solved, and even in the most high-profile massacre cases, justice is evasive. In such an environment, gangsters win real support with their crude punishments.
The creep of cartels into so many aspects of life in villages, barrios and entire cities across Mexico has been a rising problem for decades, predating the current presidency. But it has become a central challenge for Mr. López Obrador, especially amid the pandemic and recession, complicating his promise for “national regeneration.”
While the president recognizes the problem, he struggles to forge a coherent strategy. He campaigned for ending the war with “hugs not bullets,” but on May 11, he passed a decree authorizing soldiers to stay on the streets to fight crime until 2024. The move is supported by most Mexicans, according to a survey by the newspaper Reforma, but sparked condemnation from civil society groups such as Security Without War, which has called to demilitarize the Mexican conflict. In the past, the police and soldiers carried out various massacres here in the name of the drug war.
Mr. López Obrador is also building up a new militarized police force called the National Guard, which will have a permanent presence in the marginalized areas where the cartels thrive. But it has spent much of the last year rounding up Central American immigrants, largely to placate Washington.
Perhaps the biggest challenge to fighting cartels is corruption, with gangsters’ bribing officials from lowly police officers up to top politicians, as documented in dozens of court cases and convictions. “A fundamental problem for all the bodies of security in the country is corruption,” Public Security Secretary Alfonso Durazo told graduating federal officers on May 14. “You arrive with clean hands. I hope you will never be tempted.”
Making headway against such challenges can seem like an impossible task. But as people on both sides of the border push for a changed world after the pandemic, we need try harder on this issue. In the United States, as many 90 percent of those who need treatment for drug abuse don’t get it, according to the American Medical Association. The same loopholes that allow gangsters to run guns into the cities of the United States allow them to traffic firearms here.
In Mexico, the government needs to prioritize addressing impunity and building a more positive presence in poor areas, to close spaces to the cartels. I have witnessed the work of many talented social workers in Mexico’s most difficult neighborhoods, but they are usually working with only shoestring budgets.
Elsewhere in Latin America, some governments have turned to more hard-line policies to fight crime, trampling on human rights in the process. In 2018, Brazilians voted for President Jair Bolsonaro with the slogan, “The only good bandit is a dead bandit.” In April, the police in Rio de Janeiro killed almost six people a day, a rate much higher than in the United States. That same month, President Nayib Bukele of El Salvador said he was “authorizing” the police to use lethal force against gang members while his government released photos of a harsh prison lockdown, which was sharply criticized by Human Rights Watch.
Mexico and the United States need to find a way to reduce the cartels’ power by delivering rehabilitation, aid and justice. If we fail here, it could open the door for another strongman promising retribution, this time on the U.S. border.
Ioan Grillo, a contributing Opinion writer, is the author of El Narco: Inside Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency and, most recently, Gangster Warlords: Drug Dollars, Killing Fields and the New Politics of Latin America.